World War I had ended; Babe Ruth was just showing the sparks of explosive dominance on the diamond, Mississippi had become the first state in the union to ratify prohibition, and a most remarkable woman was just beginning her long journey of service to God and family.
America was just asserting itself as a world power when my mother entered the picture in 1918. A recent trip to Pittsburgh marked her 96th birthday, and Marie Schaad still had that authoritarian gleam in her eye, which always served as a warning to be on your best behavior–or else. She possesses a narrow sense of right and wrong tempered by tolerance and love. This woman’s life evolved like fine wine over the turbulent decades of the 20th century. The backdrop of her memories could serve any student of history. But modesty is another quality of mom’s DNA. So it’s no suprise that she is a reluctant subject for an interview.
“Everybody’s celebrating my age,” mom told me with an ever-so-slight tone of sarcasm.
I then asked about her earliest memories.
“I don’t remember anything anymore.”
“C’ mon mom, you used to tell me about going to movies with grandma.”
That was the nudge which opened the gate to about 1924.
“The first thing I remember is a clicking sound. You know, movies were silent in those days. That was my first recollection of the movies.”
Some recall traumatic scenes as a child. For my mother, it was a flickering black and white image playing in a dark ornate theater in downtown Pittsburgh.
“I remember one thing that scared the devil out of me. I was about 6. At that time, they had orchestras that accompanied the movies . One (movie) had a railaroad crash, and the music got louder and louder right before two trains collided, and that scared the life out of me. I wouldn’t go to movies for years after that.”
But she also remembers what could have been a real-life gangster flick which played out in her neighborhood during that same decade of jazz and bathtub gin. I wrote about it extensively following a previous conversation. You can read it here.
Movies and entertainment, pop culture, if you will, didn’t do much for mom. Her memories during the Great Depression center around the home, and what it took to get by. Many of you remember stories from grandparents and great-grandparents. I happen to be only one generation removed from that experience. My grandfather went from building homes and supervising huge construction projects, to barely earning enough to put food on the table.
“Grandpap couldn’t get any work. He did landscaping for 25 cents an hour. Uncle John had a secure job working for a paint company. They used to bring us food. I also remember eating a lot of stewed tomatoes with bread in those days. I got a job in a real estate office doing secretarial work: typing and shorthand. It was about $20 a month.”
It was during this segment of the conversation where mom talked briefly about 1930′s race relations and how it pertained to her job.
“We had a rental list–special lists for ‘colored’ people. I would get calls, and the voice on the other end would ask, ’Do you have anything for colored?’ Black people lived in the Hill District, (of Pittsburgh) and that’s the way things were then. It took a lot of years to change that.”
Then there was the scene with my father on December 7th, 1941, which Hollywood couldn’t have written any better.
“We were in a movie Sunday afternoon. We came out of the movie, and the newspaper boy was announcing the fact that we were at war. It affected us because we weren’t married yet. I figured dad would have to go to war. That kept us from getting married. ”
Mom’s patience is another one of her blessed qualities. She and dad dated seven years. He was initally declared 4-F because of his heart, but more men were being drafted in the final months of the war.
“I remember in 1944 that he said. ‘If I’m not in the army by spring, we’re getting married.’
Not the most romantic proposal, but my father was a man of his word. Mom and dad were married 31 years until he died in 1975.
I asked mom, a lifelong devout Catholic, about the assassination of President Kennedy, what it meant to her losing a man who shared her faith.
“I remember Bernie (my older sister) coming up through the yard, and she was crying. I think I cried for three days. It affected me that way.”
That meant something coming from a woman who always keeps her composure, and rarely did I see her shed a tear while growing up. Maybe part of that comes from mom’s generation. Emotions were kept to oneself. Family and work took precedence over leisure and laughter, although mom might be one of the happiest people I know.
She never complained about the daily load of chores that came with the title “housewife” in her day.
“It was everything. The rooms need painted? They were painted when dad came home. I finished the upstairs. I spackled the walls and put the textured paint and had dinner ready. I cut the grass, and made dresses and curtains. I didn’t have a dryer. Grandma gave me her dryer when you were born. I never watched soap operas–never got addicted to them.”
Quite frankly, with a schedule like that, there wasn’t time.
Mom has spent nearly a century on this earth embracing a style of feminine strength and simple dignity. She was never one to put on airs, so it’s no surprise her secret to long life is really not much of a secret at all.
“Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. And don’t get upset over things. I just eat whatever I want to eat, and I don’t eat too much. Housework was my exercise. Cutting the grass and yardwork. I also have steps here too. Steps going down to the cellar, and steps going upstairs.”
So much for gym memberships or zumba classes. Mom has been blessed with physical health. Besides her four pregnancies, she spent just one day in the hospital. But mom does not live by bread alone.
“Faith is number one, I used to go to mass everyday. Now I watch it everyday on TV. My walking is not as good as it used to be, so I resort to television.”
So how did she survive a near century-long trip on earth?
” Lucky I guess.”
My two sisters, brother and I are the lucky ones.